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A no-nonsense guide to MOOCs

Massive Open Online Courses offer university-level tuition online to anyone who's game – and minus the tuition fees!  But are they worth your time?
massive open online learningThe name ‘MOOC’ might sound like a joke – and it’s no less amusing when you learn it’s short for ‘Massive Open Online Course’, either – but these open access courses are becoming a popular way to broaden knowledge, dabble in new fields and even improve your career prospects.

Always had an interest in economics but not sure if it's really your bag? A MOOC in the subject could be the perfect opportunity to dip your toe in the water and give it a bash, but without too much commitment in case you change your mind.

We've got everything you need to know about these open access courses – read on to work out if they're the right option for you!

What’s a MOOC?

book-loveMOOCs are short university-level courses offered online via distance learning and free of charge (in most cases, anyway).

Instead of attending lectures and seminars every day, courses are taught entirely online, contact is made with lecturers by email, and group discussions take place over course forums.

Coursework and assessment works differently depending on the course you take and which university is offering the program. Generally, you'll be looking at a few weeks per course which will require a couple of hours of your time each week.

The main aim of these courses is to make university-level knowledge accessible to anyone who wants to learn, regardless of their location or personal situation. MOOCs shouldn't be confused with Open University courses, as these are fully accredited university degrees offered online for students who want to study in their own time (and so will involve many years of commitment and degree-level tuition fees, too).

MOOCs are gaining in popularity for the reason that they provide high quality teaching from some of the most respected professors and at the world's best universities, but require very little commitment and have no entry requirements.

Oxford Uni have even recently announced they’ll be stepping into the distance learning world by offering their first MOOC in 2017. The course focusses on understanding the economy, and will be taught by Sir Paul Collier, professor of economics and public policy at the Blavatnik School of Government.

They're enrolling now and class will begin from February 2017, if you're interested – more info here!

Will MOOCs give me a qualification?

2014 Grad job marketMost MOOCs won’t offer a formal qualification once you've completed the course (but you can pay around £50 for a certificate if you'd like proof). It is, however, possible to use certain programs to gain credits towards a degree or to gain a Certificate of Achievement (but again, you'll have to fork out for this).

FutureLearn, which is currently the UK's biggest MOOC provider, gives students the option of choosing between doing a free course, or taking up a 'program'. Programs comprise of a number of the free courses combined in order to give students the opportunity to gain more in depth knowledge on a subject.

After completing a full program, you can either be awarded credits towards a university degree or a certificate of achievement. In order to gain the credits, you need to take an assessment at the end of each block/ course, and pay for each certificate.

You're sometimes also required to take a final assessment at the end of the program, which will also cost you some dollar. Prices vary, but generally you'd be looking at around £50 for a certificate and £200 for a final exam.

So are they really free, then?

scepticalYou'll still gain full access to these courses free of charge, it's only if you're really rooting for an accredited qualification that things can get costly.

And it's not just about qualifications in the MOOC game! Just because you don't always finish with credits doesn’t mean free courses won’t improve your career prospects and look great on your CV.

Extracurricular learning demonstrates to future employers that you’re not just in it for the grades, but that you have a genuine desire to learn and broaden your knowledge. 

Some universities have also started taking their first steps towards offering accredited degrees online (or at least partially).

For example, Leeds University recently announced they’ll be giving first year Geography students the option to take 10 credits online in first year in exchange for a discount on tuition fees, and the option to leapfrog part of the course.

Did you know a lot of unis are offering discounts on degrees under certain circumstances? Find out if your uni's offering any deals!

However, it's worth knowing that whilst access to all the course materials and the online tuition itself is free of charge, you do need to pass each block and pay £50 for a certificate to progress onto the degree at the end of it (costs work out at around £500 in total) so it's not a free option.

Interestingly, Daphne Koller, co-founder of Coursera, believes unis will begin offering fully accredited degrees online within the next five years.

She told the BBC:

I’m absolutely convinced that will happen – and it will be a lot earlier than 10 years. The societal need is there. A full-blown undergraduate degree – I’d be surprised if that didn’t happen within five years.

To MOOC or not to MOOC?

Arrows pointing in opposite directionThat's the question! Online learning isn't for everyone, and MOOCs do tend to be most popular amongst graduates seeking to top up their knowledge on a subject to progress in their career.

However, that's not to say that current students can't benefit from these courses – particularly if your CV is looking a bit thin, having some extracurricular learning on there that shows you're actively keen to learn outside of your field will really impress graduate employers.

To keep things simple, here's a list of some of the reasons you might want to give it a try (and reasons why they might not be right for you).

We recommend giving MOOCs a try if you…

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  • think you might be interested in a career that's not related to what you studied
  • could benefit from flexible learning from home and in your own time
  • are interested in a subject that would be better taught from a uni elsewhere in the world than the UK
  • are keen to beef up your CV
  • genuinely enjoy learning and would like to broaden your skill set
  • are looking to progress faster in your career – MOOCs can offer you the necessary knowledge to grow in the work place
  • are contemplating university but aren’t sure if it’s for you (or what subject to study).

We don’t recommend MOOCs if you…

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  • are looking for a tangible reward (i.e. qualification) out of it (unless you're willing to pay up)
  • struggle to self-motivate and normally need prompting to meet deadlines (drop-out rates up to 90% on courses without fees)
  • struggle with computers in any way  – as the entire course is done online, a certain level of computer literacy is crucial
  • feel you need one-on-one contact with tutors and classmates – all contact is done online, and you'll get much less contact with tutors.

Where to find the best courses

detectivefindsAt the start of 2016, there were around 4,000 MOOCs available online from all around the world. Whilst the majority of courses have been US-based in the past, the launch FutureLearn in 2012 has seen universities across the UK getting involved in online learning.

If you're keen on having a look around to see what sort of courses are on offer, here's a few places to get your started!

  • FutureLearn – Originally started by the Open University, and now working with more than 20 universities in the UK as well as various world-renouned unis and institutions such as the British Library and British Museums.
  • Coursera – One of the largest US-based MOOC providers, Coursera offers upwards of 500 courses from around 100 different institutions worldwide.
  • EdXEdX is a not-for-profit provider created by MIT and Harvard University. Reaching the 7 million users mark in 2016 and with more than 700 courses, EdX is one of the most popular MOOC providers.
  • UdacityUdacity focuses on free courses which they categorise into beginners, intermediate and advanced levels. It is also possible to pay for accreditation on some courses, which they call 'nanodegrees'. Udacity's courses tend to focus on more niche tech-related subjects.

Interested to know what sorts of courses are on offer? We've got a few of our top picks right here. Feel free to share any MOOC experiences below!

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